All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Goods and Services–and Not-So-Goods

One of the exciting things about Cairo is how easy it is to get food delivered, cheaply by American standards.  Even McDonald’s delivers – even Cinnabon delivers if you want. 

For the past two nights I’ve been exploring the exciting culinary possibilities of a website that serves as a database of all the delivery restaurants in Cairo.  You can hunt the places up by neighborhood, then click on a restaurant name and their menu comes up so you can tick different items.  Once your order is placed a countdown to the time your food should arrive appears so you know exactly how long you have to live with that rumbling tummy.  It’s dangerously easy to do this, plus watching the countdown is kinda fun.  

Also contributing to the atrophy of my domestic skills is a conversation my roommates and I had about a week ago.  After seeing how rapidly the dust accumulated in our little flat we mutually decided to get a cleaning lady.  Before you all roll your eyes at how hoity-toity we’ve become, remember that in Cairo leaving the window open for a day allows approximately as much dust to accumulate as you would get in London or New York in, say, a month.  Given that we’re all (ahem) hard-working students and our landlady quoted us a price of 45 Egyptian pounds per visit, we decided maybe she could come once every two weeks and save us the trouble of becoming domestic divas.

My roommates are currently out of town for the public holidays, so I was very surprised when I came home to find the door wasn’t deadbolted as I’d left it.  (It was latched from the inside, but the bolt wasn’t on – I wouldn’t have gone in if the door was wide open or anything like that.)  When I went inside I was dazzled by our suddenly cleanly floor and realized that our cleaning lady was paying us a visit. 

What a difference!  The beautiful marble sink in the bathroom gleamed, our granite countertop in the kitchen shone.  The beds were made, the dishes were done, the place smelled all nice and fresh.  The cleaning lady asked if I was happy with her work (we both stumbled around in baby-talk Arabic until I realized what she was saying) and I affirmed my delight. 

Then came the part where I had to pay her.  I knew the price, but I asked BiKam? anyway.  I’m not sure why I did this, but she sort of smiled and made prevaricating sounds, something along the lines of, “oh, whatever you think it’s worth.”   Remembering our landlord’s quote to us a few days before I handed her a fifty Egyptian pound note and indicated she should keep the change.  She frowned.  “’Ashura.” (Ten [more]).  I stumblingly explained that we’d ben told forty-five pounds by our landlady.  “Sitteen.” (Sixty).  No, no, I said.  We were told khamsa we ‘arba’a. ”Khamse we ‘arba’a?” She looked at me doubtingly. 

“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry, but we were told forty-five by the landlady and if there’s a problem, you’re going to have to bring it up with her, because we were not told sixty.”

Our cleaning lady, though clearly not happy with this arrangement, declined to go upstairs and involve the landlady.  She left the house, her mouth a grim line, but did agree to come back in two weeks to make our floors sparkle again.

I felt ambivalent about my little victory.  On one hand my flatmates and I had agreed on a price with the landlady and a deal is a deal.  On the other hand, I was arguing over a grand total of less than three dollars for a service I consider a complete luxury anyway. 

Now we’re in a situation where I resent her for trying to swindle me by raising the price after doing the job, and she resents me for being an arrogant foreigner who could afford to pay a much greater price – and certainly would expect to pay much more dearly, were we not in Egypt – but who is haggling over pennies.  As I feared it’s grown from being a simple commercial transaction into a whole fraught extravaganza of power and privilege, the morality of socioeconomics.  

In America, if I’ve agreed on a price for something and then get billed for three dollars more than what I agreed, you can darned well bet that I’ll be questioning those charges.  But somehow this is different.  Maybe I should just wash my own floors after all.

 In other news, I got this text message a couple of days ago (pre-emergency room) from somebody whose number I didn’t recognize that kept coming up as a missed call.  I finally answered once and they hung up immediately, then sent this text:

Sorry I’m dialled wrong number but if you didn’t have any peroblem I want talk with any some one Crazy I know ; – ) : – > Bye Ms. ?????

GAAAAAAH!!  It isn’t enough to get stared at and whispered at, if not outright followed when I go outside, now I’m getting text-harassed as well?!  For those of you fortunately not conversant in text-speak, the little winky-smile face plus the pointy-smile face are a total come-on.  It’s like a sonnet, only less flattering.

Here’s the message I almost sent back:

I do have a problem.  Do not ever, ever call or text me again or you will be hearing from my father and my lawyer.

In the end I decided to say nothing and see if that did the trick but reserve the lawyer message for emergencies only.  So far so good.  But I told my roommates about it and they both said they’d had repeated unwanted calls from male acquaintances of theirs. 

One said initially it started because the guy was trying to call somebody else with the same name, but even though he now realized she’s a different person he kept calling her back, almost like it was game.  Her solution was threatening to call the police, which appears to have worked. 

The other said a guy she knows continually came on to her until she finally said something along the lines of, “look, my boyfriend is getting really mad that you keep harassing me, and if you don’t stop, well, he’s just going to keep getting really angry about this whole thing.”  (I’m pretty sure this is a figmentary boyfriend.)  Apparently this guy responded by apologizing – not to her, mind, but telling her to apologize on his behalf TO HER BOYFRIEND.  Because of course her repeated assertions that she didn’t like it don’t count for anything.

I can’t describe how royally pissed off, indignant and protective of my personal space I felt when I first received the message.  But I realized that the staring, muttered comments and unsolicited text messages cannot take your pride and dignity unless you allow yourself to believe they can. 

Let ‘em stare.  I’m about four inches taller than most Egyptian men so I can probably wallop them silly if they really try anything.  That’s what I brought the parasol for, after all.